The Paralympics - what did it change?

The London 2012 Paralympic Games inspired millions and shattered preconceptions of disability. But, one year on, John Owens asks four insiders how big an impact it has actually had on society.


The fanfare has faded and the Superhumans have long moved on.

While millions cheered as David 'Weirwolf' Weir propelled his wheelchair to astonishing speeds, capturing the nation's hearts in the process, one year on questions remain over what the long-term impact of the London 2012 Paralympic Games has been on disability and disabled sport.

Arguably it will be many more years before those difficult questions can be answered fully. But one thing is indisputable. The Paralympics was successful in shifting short-term perceptions on disability, whether among politicians, CEOs, the media or the public.

Research by the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Work and Pensions found that 53 per cent of 2,880 survey respondents in March 2013 said their view of disabled people had been changed positively by the Games - down just one per cent from the immediate aftermath of the Games.

There is no doubt Channel 4 played, and continues to play, a key role in helping to propagate this attitude shift. Like the British Paralympic Association (BPA), it focused on the athletes in sporting terms, coining the term 'Superhumans' in a shift of rhetoric designed to convey that these athletes were not sympathy cases.

Claire Furlong, a director at 16ten Consulting and former head of marketing and comms at UK Athletics, says this 'Superhuman' messaging 'utterly transformed perceptions' of disability in a fundamental way.

The BPA continues its good work, but where are the corporate backers?

In her column overleaf, the BPA's Jane Jones points to strong backing ahead of Rio. Sainsbury's, a key backer of the Paralympics, has continued its efforts with schemes like 'Active Kids for All', with £2m in funding given so far to involve disabled children in mainstream schools with sports.

Adam Raincock, director of comms at Synergy Sponsorship, says the Paralympics has made corporate backing not just an act of CSR but 'a sensible business decision'.

But there has also been coverage of a lack of take-up of disabled sport, and fears political posturing over 'benefit cheats' is diluting good will. Media coverage beyond Channel 4, meanwhile, still has a long way to go.

And though the foundations have been laid, there is only so much comms can do.

Sainsbury's corporate head Alex Cole sets out a challenge to other companies to 'take more of a can-do attitude towards employing people with disabilities'.

Paralympic athlete and Channel 4 presenter Ade Adepitan points out concrete changes for the disabled are built on the basis of capital investment.

While positive public sentiment can help, it can go only so far in loosening Government purse strings.

Jane Jones Director of comms, British Paralympic Association

Jane Jones

We recognised early on that the success of a home Games should not just be measured by the number of medals around British athletes' necks, but the change in perceptions of disability.

It was clear, however, that the messaging had to be led by sport, as it was the world-class nature of the sport that was going to engage the public.

Through work with LOCOG we had the opportunity to develop relationships with big blue chip companies such as BP and EDF.

I'd like to think that they have seen a great return on their investment, and it's meant that we already have six sponsors for the Rio Games - BP, BT, Deloitte, Sainsbury's, EDF and Nissan - with three more to announce shortly. That's far more than we had at the same stage ahead of the London Games.

I think the reason behind this is that the Paralympics showed an appetite among the public not seen before. For companies, it can also bring something to a brand that other sport sometimes cannot - stories of people dealing with impairment have a broader appeal than just sports fans.

It also feels like media interest is being sustained. For the 2010 winter Paralympics in Vancouver we had two UK journalists accredited to go. For the 2014 event in Sochi we have 20.

Of course, we would never suggest that the Paralympics are a cure-all for issues of perception around disability. Our role is not to get involved in political debates, but the prominence of Paralympic figures has allowed them to comment and get coverage. Take equestrian Sophie Christiansen, for example, who has spoken on topics like welfare reform.

Not everyone can be a Paralympian but we recognise the power of the brand to inspire, and we can see the appetite among disabled people to get more involved with sports.

The legacy was never going to happen overnight, but we are now seeing a freer debate happening on issues affecting disability.

Ade Adepitan Channel 4 presenter and Paralympic basketball player

Ade Adepitan

Off the back of the Paralympics, public euphoria was so high that it would have been impossible to maintain. Although things have changed for the better, we still have a long way to go.

Channel 4 began building up coverage two years before the event, allowing the public to get a basic knowledge of who the athletes were. Its Superhumans campaign was also important, in that it moved away from other portrayals of disability attempting to tap into public sympathy to an in-your-face example of elite athletes.

The Paralympics did more than any other movement in the past 30 years for disability but there's still a danger that people will slip back into default mode.

Now it is vital to keep pushing forward the public's perception of disability continually, and events like the Sainsbury's Paralympic Anniversary Games later this month will help.

However, although there has been good work by media such as The Telegraph, it seems many are still waiting for Channel 4's lead. They will not go out actively seeking stories unless there is a major event. We need the tabloids to get involved with the issue too.

It is still very fashionable for people to say they're doing stuff to help people with disabilities and there is often a gap between this and the reality. We need to see concrete changes more widely if we want to see a change in perceptions. We still live in a society that is often physically inaccessible for the majority of disabled people when it comes to things like access to transport or in schools.

We also need to see more in the way of decent corporate sponsorship for Paralympians. I know someone who decided to become an agent to look after Paralympians and they say it's been like walking through treacle.

Now the Games are over we're seeing corporations reverting back to what they see as safe bets. We need to ensure that there is coverage and backing in between the big events.

Jackie Brock-Doyle Group CEO, The Good Relations Group, and former LOCOG comms and public affairs director

Jackie Brock-Doyle

For millions of people across the UK and around the world, the Paralympic Games and the Paralympians were the game changers of 2012. For me it saw a coming of age, a stepping into the light, for a global sporting event that had sat in the shadow of the Olympic Games for too many years. Around 2.75 million tickets were sold for the Paralympic Games, which was a record-breaking virtual sell-out, and new standards were set for accessibility at sporting events.

A record-breaking audience - 40 million people (70 per cent of the population) - watched the Paralympic Games and 81 per cent of people surveyed after the Games said the event had a positive effect on how disabled people are viewed by the British public.

So a year later have the Paralympics left their mark? The answer is yes but there is always more to do.

We have seen participation rates for disabled people playing sport show an upward trend since we won the right to host the Games in 2005. While there is still a massive divide between the number of disabled people and non-disabled people playing sport, the latest report on legacy from the Cabinet Office shows an increase of 46,600 from April 2012 to April 2013, with Paralympic sports such as equestrianism and athletics growing in popularity.

We have seen increased funding at both elite and community level to support UK Paralympians going to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games and support grassroots access and participation. Over the next four years there are a number of high profile sporting events being hosted in the UK that will continue to inspire and motivate.

Increased accessibility and better accessibility information on the transport system, in venues and in other environments continues to be taken forward by the Department for Transport and Transport for London and 76 of the mobility scooters used in the Olympic Park have been distributed to shop mobility schemes across London.

Daniel Mazliah Head of media relations, disability charity Scope

Daniel Mazliah

As he closed the Paralympics, Lord Coe said we'd never view disability in the same way again.

But one year on there is a real debate about the so-called Paralympics effect.

The Paralympics was a huge opportunity. Most non-disabled people don't get a chance to speak to disabled people. Disabled people feel strongly that what is said publicly is crucial in shaping attitudes.

Last summer was a breakthrough moment. Disabled people had never been so visible. Disability had never been talked about so openly. A disabled person was on the front page of the Metro every morning. Every night Channel 4's Last Leg had a PC amnesty with its 'is it OK to ask?' feature.

Surveys in the aftermath of the Games suggested this had an impact. But you don't change society in a fortnight.

The Government, the media and charities have all pushed to keep the positivity going.

Disability minister Esther McVey has launched a PR bid to raise the profile of disabled 'role models'.

Since the Games there have been great media moments such as disabled comedian Jack Carroll on Britain's Got Talent and the BBC's disability history series.

But a respected disabled journalist recently told me he thought the buzz had completely evaporated. I've heard this a lot lately.

Speak to disabled people and the same issue comes up: 'benefit scrounger' rhetoric.

The Government regularly turns to sound bites such as the image of a hard working person who gets up early for work, while his benefits-claiming neighbour's blinds are pulled, to make the case for welfare reform.

The narrative comes alive in the tabloid press, as statistics are misused and stories of benefit fakers grab headlines.

Scope is calling on the Government to stop the scrounger rhetoric. But at the same time charities must raise their game. Research shows we don't get cut-through, and don't do everything we can to provide disabled people with a platform to tell powerful, stereotypebusting, attitude-changing stories about their life.

Alex Cole, Corporate Affairs director, Sainsbury’s

Alex Cole

From day one we knew we wanted to be an active, not a passive, sponsor of the Paralympic Games.

It was important for us to be an integral part of the movement, and we were equally focused on playing our part in maintaining the momentum after the Games were over.

Ahead of the Games we launched our ‘Million Kids Challenge’ fronted by David Beckham and Ellie Simmonds. This encouraged children across the UK to have a go at Paralympic sport.

In store, we generated excitement among colleagues and customers through hundreds of events and activities, including our very own Paralympic Torch tour. We also took the opportunity to review our internal practices and colleague training relating to disability issues and found that one in eight of our colleagues are carers, offering a real insight how we can support them.  

Now we're focused on continuing the momentum. In the weeks immediately after the Games, ‘Active Kids for All’ was launched. This commitment has already led to £2m of funding that will help ensure that children with disabilities being educated in mainstream schools are included in sports classes.

As part of the Paralympic anniversary celebrations, we’re sponsoring the Sainsbury’s Summer Series – three athletics championship events which include Paralympic sports. We’re also continuing our sponsorship of the British Paralympic Association all the way to Rio 2016, pledging £10 for every child who completes a mile in our ‘Road to Rio’ initiative until the 5,750 miles to the host city of the 2016 Paralympic Games is covered. 

The Paralympic Games was record-breaking in many ways, but its real legacy will be the change in attitudes to disability. Paralympic sport challenges assumptions and breaks down barriers.  It focuses attention on achievement, to consider what someone is able to do rather than what they are not. 

Dan Brooke, chief marketing & comms officer, Channel 4

Dan Brooke

Can it really be a year since "Peacock takes the gold"? Since Ellie Simmonds buried those tears of joy face down in the pool? And "The Weirwolf’s" bare chest broke the finishing tape? It all seems like yesterday.

For Channel 4, winning a BAFTA and Cannes Advertising and Marketing Society Grand Prixes have been nice, but the thing that has really got our blood racing is the change in public attitudes forged by the Games.

We have a public service remit to be innovative and distinctive and to champion alternative perspectives. So, following the Games, we were encouraged to see that two thirds of viewers felt the coverage had a favourable impact on their perceptions of disabled sport: 80 per cent of viewers enjoyed the fact that there were disabled presenters on screen and 74 per cent liked their matter of fact discussions about disability.

But having taken several giant prosthetic leaps forward, have public attitudes slipped back? Not according to research conducted by the Office for National Statistics and the Department for Work and Pensions. Right after the Games, 54 per cent of people said that their own view of disabled people had been changed positively by the Paralympics and by March this was still a staggering 53 per cent.

To keep the momentum up this summer we are showing documentaries fronted by presenters Ade Adepitan, Alex Brooker and Arthur Williams, while The Last Leg will be making a welcome return. We have extensive coverage of July’s IPC Athletics World Championships and Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games, as well as August’s IPC Swimming World Championships. Further out, we are showing the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games in Sochi and the 2016 Paralympic Games from Rio.

There is much still to do, but we can look back at 2012 and see it as an explosive moment that even Jonnie Peacock would be proud of.

Ade image by Kelly Hill. Jackie image by Belinda Lawley. 

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